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Commonly used rail car has dangerous design flaw

For two decades a type of rail tanker that could tear open in the event of an accident has been used to haul hazardous liquids across the country.

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On the way home from her nursing job, Chris Carter stopped at a rail crossing near Rockford as a Canadian National freight train barreled past carrying more than 2 million gallons of ethanol to Chicago.

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Unknown to the train's two crew members and the small number of waiting motorists, a section of track had washed out in a rainstorm earlier that evening.

"I notice to my right side there's sparks like fireworks, like a sparkler," Carter said. "So that catches my eye. In my head I'm going, 'Oh my God, this is going to derail.' I could feel it, I could tell."

The train began to come apart, its cars bouncing and colliding like toys thrown by a child. One exploded as it tumbled through the air.

"I stood there just frozen, watching these unbelievable explosions," Carter recalled. "The concussion from the energy just blew your hair back."

More than 20 miles away, Carter's husband and son saw the fire from their farmhouse. It looked to them like a sunrise.

As Carter and the others ran, an older woman who injured her knee couldn't move. She cast a tiny silhouette against an enormous wall of flame. A man ran back and rescued her.

On the other side of the tracks, one of the explosions washed over the van of Jose Tellez and his family. His wife, Zoila, was killed.

Witness Matthew Koch told a local newspaper he saw Zoila Tellez run from the vehicle in flames and fall to her knees with her arms outstretched as if she were reaching out for help.

Jose Tellez suffered burns, and his adult daughter, Addriana, who was five months' pregnant, lost her baby.

In addition to the fatality, 11 people were injured, making it the nation's single worst ethanol tanker accident. Nineteen of the 114 cars derailed. Thirteen released ethanol and caught fire.

In its final report in February, the NTSB cited the "inadequate design" of the tanker cars as a factor contributing to the severity of the accident.

The other accident in which a release of ethanol claimed a life was a 1996 derailment at Cajon Junction in southern California. The train's brakeman, who was thrown or jumped from the locomotive, burned to death after apparently trying to crawl to safety in a creek bed.

The Ohio derailment forced a mile-wide evacuation just north of downtown Columbus. Three tankers, each carrying 30,000 gallons of ethanol, caught fire and filled the night sky with flames.

"The heat was so excruciating that I had to ball up and cover my body," said Nicholas Goodrich, a grocery store employee who happened to be nearby and ran to the scene.

The cost of retrofitting existing tankers is estimated conservatively at $1 billion and would be shouldered mostly by the ethanol-makers who own and lease the cars. The rail industry points to its improving safety record, but that's little comfort to communities like Barrington, said Village President Karen Darch.

"There's a risk every day of affecting lots of people in one incident," Darch said, "lots of property, but obviously most importantly, lots of people's lives."

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